WARNING: Long Post. Contains Math.
I confess I have found myself frustrated this past week over the public response to Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks, leaked from a private fundraiser in May. Just to recap, here’s what was said:
There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…These are people who pay no income tax, 47% of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll (President Obama) be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not.
In the days since the video was released, there’s been a lot of response . . . but not necessarily the right response. From the right there’ve been two basic strategies: distancing (“I’m not him!!”) and apologia – namely a defense of the truth of the statistic in spite of the “inelegant” delivery.
From the left, the responses have been about process (“Is this the end of Romney’s campaign?”), or decrying of the candidate’s character, or lack thereof. The left’s response has been primarily about the character question, and about Romney’s seeming lack of compassion. Most of this has come in the form of, “Yes, but look at the people contained within the 47%!!”
In both instances, the truth of the statistic, and of what Romney is trying to communicate, is not often disputed. Technically, Romney is almost correct (it’s 46% according to the Tax Policy Center, who also note that number is abnormally high due to the current state of the economy).
However, the people who Romney is really trying to talk about are the poor. Look at the phrases used: “dependent upon government”; “ believe they are entitled”; “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” These are all standard issue conservative bromides vis a vis “the poor.” From the left, we decry the lack of compassion inherent in those statements. From my side of the aisle, I hear: “But that number includes the elderly! And children! And veterans!” There’s not a lot of challenge about the statistic itself, and the number needs to be challenged, especially if what we’re really talking about is poverty in the United States.
Thus, my frustration. Both ends of the political spectrum (at least from those who have a platform from which to be heard) make their arguments based on myths about poverty in this country that (dammit!) refuse to die. Romney’s remarks have provided us with an opportunity to have a fresh, honest conversation about poverty and “the poor.” And we’re dodging the conversation.
America (red and blue), you are pushing all my buttons this week. Let’s have a chat.